The Trek From Hell

My wife and I are not geriatrics. Neither are we spring chickens. We're greypackers: fit for our age; fitter than many younger than us. But Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay we ain't. So when we read about a moderate 2 day/1 night trek with Green Discovery out of Pakse in Laos to the Bolaven Plateau, we take the company at it's word. Along with two younger Aussies, we present ourselves at Green Discovery's office. We're transferred to a village 1500 metres above the countryside of surrounding Southern Laos, an area famous for its coffee growing. Planted by French colonists in the 1920's, it was called the Champagne of coffees when first tasted by Parisiennes.

We're travelling with a guide, Mr Noi, who speaks excellent English. When we leave Pakse it's 30+ degrees centigrade, humid, and sunny. By the time we reach our starting point, the sun has gone, and the temperature has dropped 20 degrees. My wife and I, and the other male Ausiie are wearing t shirts, his partner a tank top. My wife hands her a pashmeena which she gratefully wraps around herself and off we go.

We've picked up two local guides, who carry our camping gear and food. The first couple of kms is on a paved road. We then strike off into lightly wooded scrub, that gets progressively denser. We stop for lunch by a stream, and the sun breaks through again. Fed and watered, we press on to our first obstacle: a bridge across a stream. It consists of a log placed across the gap and a rope strung between two trees. Don't worry about drowning if you fall in; the fall itself will kill you. Safely across we hit impenetrable jungle the real trek is about to begin. One of the guides pulls out a machete and takes off ahead. Mr Noi follows. Our group and the other guide take up the rear. The track is a path hacked out of the jungle by our lead guide. Mr Noi will tell us that night we're the first trekkers of the season and the track has grown over in the wet. As we occasionally come across crude steps and rope rails, I take him at his word. I just don't know which year the season he's referring to was in. Certain not this millenium.

After two hours of thrashing and crashing, we stop. Between sips of water, Mr Noi says we now go down hill to our camp site. How long down hill, I ask. Oh, maybe one and half, two hours. We quickly learn this is called Lao time. Mr Noi grins a lot. I guess he thinks farangs have a sense of humour and will grin along with him. We don't. Occasional trekkers think climbing is hard. Compared to descending, it's a doddle. Two hours of hell ensue as we slither and slide on our hands, knees, and boomps-a-daisies to our overnight destination: a rocky plateau.

Now I've camped in many scenic spots. This one tops them all. Twin waterfalls roar as thousands of tons of water race over the edge and crash into the valley below. The guides set up and soon the fire is going and the food is cooking. My wife grabs a bottle to take a drink of water. She spits it out with an expletive: it is Lao whisky; same colour, slightly different taste.
Dinner is delicious: noodles, meal and vegetables. We round it off with Lao coffee. Mr Noi offers the Lao whisky around to spice it up. I'm the only taker. Now I once drank a village headman under the table in the Vietnamese Highlands over a bottle of home made rice wine. This is different. A couple of shots and I'm talking Swahili. One for the road and Mr Noi has to escort me to bed. I sleep like a baby. My wife spends the night tossing and turning to the sound of my snoring and the falls roaring.

Wake with a hangover. Breakfasted, we venture back out of the valley taking the same route we took in. Instead of sliding we pull ourselves out grabbing whatever is in reach. Atop the plateau the views are spectacular: mountains from horizon to horizon; the mighty Mekong a slim band of silver meandering across the plains. The rest of the trek back to the village is a walk in the park. We stop in the village to sample some freshly picked coffee beans. They taste like Smarties.

Back to Pakse and a debrief. Mr Noi invites us around to his home for dinner. We decline gracefully. Another dram of Laos whisky and I'd be off to AA. Trek from Hell? Not really. Hell couldn't be that difficult.

R McCormack

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